Every year the Endocrine Society recognizes endocrinologists who are in the early stages of their research careers with the Early Investigator Awards. Endocrine News spoke to five researchers from around the world to find out more about their award-winning research, the award’s potential impact, as well as the biggest challenges facing them today.
When the recipients of the Endocrine Society’s 2023 Early Investigator Awards presented their research at ENDO 2023, the atmosphere in the packed room at McCormick place was electric; there were no empty seats, and it was truly “standing room only” (including a couple of Endocrine Society past presidents!).
As this year’s winners got up to speak, it was easy to see why this was such a “hot ticket” because their presentations covered a dynamic spectrum of endocrine research, from the development of human germline and urogenital organs; novel genes and pathways associated with congenital hypopituitarism; platforms for affordable genetic testing; the molecular mechanisms of regulated secretion and the use of genetic and pharmacological tools; and research focused on diabetes and innovations in technology that advance the treatment of type 1 diabetes.
The 2023 winners are: Michael Kalwat, PhD, an assistant investigator in the Lilly Diabetes Center of Excellence within the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute’s Diabetes Center and a member of the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases; Peter van Dijk, MD, PhD, a clinical academic endocrinologist who specializes in diabetes and general endocrinology at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), Groningen, The Netherlands; Laura Hernandez-Ramirez, MD, PhD, an associate researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico; Louise Gregory, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist at University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (ICH), London, U.K.; and Kotaro Sasaki, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
“I strive to contribute new discoveries in pancreatic islet biology that lead to better detection and treatment of diabetes and other endocrine disorders. I consider the support that the Endocrine Society provides to early career basic researchers like me as critical for achieving these outcomes.”Michael Kalwat, PhD, assistant investigator, Lilly Diabetes Center of Excellence, Indiana Biosciences Research Institute’s Diabetes Center; member, Indiana University School of Medicine’s Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Disease, Indianapolis, Indiana
Endocrine News was fortunate enough to catch their presentations in Chicago and caught up with them to learn more about their research, the unique challenges they’ve each faced, and what the award means for their work.
Tell us a little bit about your research and your motivation to apply for the Early Investigator Award.
Michael Kalwat: My lab is working on projects related to both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as well as broad understanding of hormone-secreting cells. We’ve used high-throughput screening to find new chemicals that alter the function of insulin-secreting beta cells, and we hope these chemical tools will help identify new biology and disease treatment strategies. After starting my independent lab at the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute’s Diabetes Center (IBRI), I was fortunate to publish multiple manuscripts in Endocrinology. I appreciate the support from academic publishers like the Endocrine Society and I was looking for ways to become more connected with the organization and increase my scientific network. The Early Investigator Award provided an opportunity to accomplish those goals.
Peter van Dijk: Diabetes has a profound impact on the daily lives of individuals living with the condition. I firmly believe that technological advancements will continue to push the field of diabetes care forward in the coming decades, offering opportunities to enhance self-management, empower patients, improve glycemic control, and ultimately enhance overall well-being. As a clinical academic endocrinologist, my ambition is to leverage these technological innovations to improve the lives of individuals with diabetes.
My clinical work and research have primarily focused on exploring the effects of (implantable) insulin pumps and glucose sensors on glycemia, including glycemic variability, quality of life, disease burden, and broader endocrine and vascular aspects such as growth hormone, oxidative stress, and vascular calcifications. More recently, my research has increasingly centered on the in-hospital use of glucose sensor technology. The outcomes of these studies are interesting and exciting.
“I hope that my research will have an impact and positively influence the care for people with diabetes. To achieve this, collaboration with other research groups and promoting my work are essential. The platform provided by the Endocrine Society through the Early Investigator Award contributes to this goal.”Peter van Dijk, MD, PhD, clinical academic endocrinologist, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
Laura Hernandez-Ramirez: Presenting my work and networking at conferences has always helped me to stay in touch with other researchers and to meet new potential collaborators. As a new faculty member, I am constantly looking for opportunities to showcase my lab’s research. Given the international recognition of the Endocrine Society, this award appealed to me as a great opportunity to put my recently established lab on the map.
Louise Gregory: My research investigates novel genes and pathways in congenital hypopituitarism and related disorders. I use a multitude of laboratory and bioinformatic techniques to identify and functionally test variants that are present in children. Through molecular diagnosis we can help control their disease progression and enable an earlier introduction of targeted therapies. I applied for this prestigious Early Investigator Award due to my long-standing interest in this area of life science and my contribution to this field of research that spans 14 years of hard work and dedication.
Kotaro Sasaki: We are interested in generating human adrenal gland organoids in petri dishes using pluripotent stem cells. Our approach is to carefully recapitulate the normal developmental process through directed differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells. After the numerous iterations of trial and error over the last four years, we finally built a robust method to generate the world’s first human adrenal organoids, which closely resemble the fetal stage of the human adrenal gland. This platform allows us to study how the human adrenal gland develops normally and what happens if it goes awry. I also envision that this technology will mature further and eventually enable us to transplant for the cell therapy of adrenal insufficiency.
I am relatively new in this field and this is my second year as a member of the Endocrine Society. I was hoping that this award and presentation of my research would allow me the opportunity to network with more people working in the field.
What have been some of your biggest challenges at this point in your career as a scientist and researcher?
Kalwat: Learning to run an independent academic research lab is a challenge that I must meet daily. Earlier in my career, my focus was on my own work and projects, but as a principal investigator those concerns are multiplied by each scientist in the lab. Luckily, I have very talented and dedicated lab members as well as support from the IBRI which helps keep our research moving forward.
“After the numerous iterations of trial and error over the last four years, we finally built a robust method to generate the world’s first human adrenal organoids, which closely resemble the fetal stage of the human adrenal gland.”Kotaro Sasaki, MD, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine; Laboratory Medicine, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
van Dijk: Every phase of a researcher’s career comes with challenges. So far, I have been able to learn from and overcome all these challenges. The assistance of experienced mentors has been crucial in this regard. Currently, there is significant interest in my research, and my research group is growing. It is a challenge to find a balance between growth and maintaining high quality.
A more general challenge is to provide equal opportunities for individuals in scientific research. For instance, the increasing demands and regulations in research, as well as the requirements for open access publishing and the need for data experts to analyze big data, place higher demands on research teams. While I strongly believe that all these developments are necessary to uphold the quality of scientific research, they also create barriers, particularly for young researchers who lack access, experience, and the budget to develop the expertise required for compliance. I am fortunate that my university center provides this expertise. However, I am concerned about the potential loss of talent among other young and ambitious colleagues who do not have such access.
Hernandez-Ramirez: There’s never a “perfect” moment, but I obtained my first job as a principal investigator right in the middle of the pandemic. I could not say “no” to such a great opportunity, so I packed my stuff and moved back to my home country (Mexico), after 10 years working abroad. Setting up a new lab, starting translational research projects, and recruiting students during these strange times has been anything but easy. Funding opportunities are quite scarce in my country, so I have to appeal to international agencies, meaning that competition is fierce. Going through this adaptative process during such unprecedented times has definitely put to test my resourcefulness and resilience. Nevertheless, thanks to the help of marvelous collaborators, the great attitude of patients, and brave national and international funding bodies, my research projects are already on track.
Gregory: Obtaining funding is a struggle for all scientists in all areas, and this has been no different for me. I have continued on short-term contracts with no promise of further funding from one year to the next, which has definitely been the most difficult thing working as a researcher. I do what I do because I love my job and have a passion for scientific discovery, but it has not always been the easiest in terms of job security.
Sasaki: Raising funds is not easy, of course, but otherwise, I do not see many challenges. As you know, adrenal organoid research is a new field that has not been well studied. It is the blue ocean. Every day is full of surprises and new discoveries. It is truly exciting and rewarding to work in this exciting research area with talented scientists on my team.
“The Endocrine Society has been imperative in facilitating my relationships with world-renowned experts and has definitely given me a platform to reach a wider audience and initiate collaborations with others that I will take forward into my future career.”Louise Gregory, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist, University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, London, U.K.
How do you hope receiving the Early Investigator award will help support your goals as an endocrine scientist, and what role do you see the Endocrine Society playing in your career?
Kalwat: I hope for multiple outcomes from our work. One is to train scientists, providing them opportunities to grow and pursue careers they enjoy. Another is the overall advancement of scientific knowledge and improving human health. More specifically, I strive to contribute new discoveries in pancreatic islet biology that lead to better detection and treatment of diabetes and other endocrine disorders. I consider the support that the Endocrine Society provides to early career basic researchers like me as critical for achieving these outcomes.
Van Dijk: The honor and appreciation that come with the Early Investigator Award from my Endocrine Society family are tremendous and fuel my enthusiasm for science. Ultimately, I hope that my research will have an impact and positively influence the care for people with diabetes. To achieve this, collaboration with other research groups and promoting my work are essential. The platform provided by the Endocrine Society through the Early Investigator Award contributes to this goal.
Hernandez-Ramirez: I really appreciate the recognition from national and international peers that I have obtained through this award. My lab is currently small and there are not many other researchers working in the same field in my geographical location. Establishing connections with other groups is particularly important for me. Therefore, the Endocrine Society is a great intermediary to connect with the rest of the international endocrine research community.
Gregory: Winning this award is a great honor and I hope it demonstrates to the funding bodies that my research is really making a difference and brings hope to the patients in this area of research, which is so understudied but yet is affecting more and more people worldwide. I have presented at the Endocrine Society meetings for many years now and wish to continue to attend and present at future meetings. I think the Endocrine Society has been imperative in facilitating my relationships with world-renowned experts and has definitely given me a platform to reach a wider audience and initiate collaborations with others that I will take forward into my future career.
“As a new faculty member, I am constantly looking for opportunities to showcase my lab’s research. Given the international recognition of the Endocrine Society, this award appealed to me as a great opportunity to put my recently established lab on the map.”Laura Hernandez-Ramirez, MD, PhD, associate researcher, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico
Sasaki: I hope it will raise awareness of the adrenal gland organoid research and usefulness of this technology for understanding human adrenal development and diseases, drug screening, and potential cell therapy.
The Endocrine Society has several basic and clinical scientists working in various disciplines. It is an excellent opportunity for me to update my knowledge and obtain feedback. I am a basic scientist so interaction with the clinicians I met at [ENDO 2023] is particularly insightful.
–Newman is the executive editor of Endocrine News, and has been with the Endocrine Society since 2013.